Four quarterbacks got meaningful reps in the rare Week 1 Big Ten matchup Thursday night between Purdue and Northwestern. The win was up for grabs until the final few minutes in a slow-paced eventual Northwestern victory, by a score of 31-27. The Wildcats’ victory marked their ninth straight win, going back to 2017, and saw Purdue lose for the first time since its last meeting with Northwestern on Nov. 11 of last year.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, just eight months removed from a torn ACL suffered in the Music City Bowl, got the start in West Lafayette and finished the night, completing 16 of 27 passes for 172 yards, but in between coach Pat Fitzgerald cycled him in and out of the game, sometimes to the confusion of Northwestern fans. Backup T.J. Green entered for the third and fourth offensive series of the game, and the Wildcats’ 14–0 lead quickly evaporated thanks to two electrifying touchdowns from Purdue freshman receiver Rondale Moore, who staked his claim to being the breakout star of opening night with 313 all-purpose yards. But Northwestern’s offense was best established on the ground, where sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin racked up 143 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats did all their scoring in the game’s first two quarters, going into halftime up 31–17 over a Purdue defense still adjusting to the loss of most of its 2017 starters. That unit settled in for the game’s second half, pitching a shutout while the Boilermakers offense—by then primarily in the hands of quarterback David Blough after Elijah Sindelar’s three early interceptions—cut the deficit to four. But the Wildcats defense came up big in the fourth quarter, forcing two straight punts from Purdue on drives of nine and then -4 yards, and the offense melted the final 7:57 of clock over a 14-play drive that was extended by a mindless personal foul penalty on Purdue lineman Lorenzo Neal on a third-and-11.
Both teams' quarterbacks coming off injuries looked like just that, making it hard to draw too long-lasting of conclusions for the rest of the season and Big Ten play. Thorson, who could be one of the most intriguing names of next spring’s draft, played a clean if unremarkable game and didn’t make much of his chances to complete throws downfield. For Purdue, whose offense under Brohm can be one of the sport’s most fun, both Blough and Sindelar still looked to be hitting their respective strides. The Boilermakers did attempt one of their signature flea-flickers Thursday night—which resulted in an incomplete pass.
Of course, the first Big Ten matchup of the year wasn’t the only game of the night. Here’s what else happened:
Tulane-Wake Forest give us our first taste of overtime
The most captivating game of Thursday night was not necessarily the likeliest candidate; in New Orleans, Tulane came close to a Power 5 win over Wake Forest, only to play an uninspiring overtime series and give up a touchdown in the Demon Deacons’ first possession of extra time to lose, 23-17. Sam Hartman, Wake Forest’s freshman quarterback, stood out with 378 passing yards against a Tulane defense that held strong for much of the night. For the Green Wave offense in coach Willie Fritz’s third season, quarterback Jonathan Banks shouldered too much of the burden, but he was able to connect twice with receiver Terren Encalade, for first a 52- and then a 74-yard touchdown.
McKenzie Milton’s Heisman campaign begins in earnest
UCF spent the first half of the offseason dragging out its 2017 national championship celebration and the second half of the offseason hyping up returning quarterback McKenzie Milton as a Heisman Trophy dark horse, mailing out leis to national media members as a nod to Milton’s Hawaiian roots. Milton’s first game under the direction of new head coach Josh Heupel put to rest to any fears that his hopes of crashing the Heisman party in New York City this December left when Scott Frost took the Nebraska job.
In a 56–17 drubbing of UConn, Milton finished 24-of-32 through the air for 346 yards and five touchdowns, adding 50 rushing yards on seven carries to help extend the Knights’ FBS-leading winning streak to 14 games. Heupel’s offense, which helped propel Missouri’s Drew Lock to the top of many SEC passing categories last season, succeeded in getting as many UCF playmakers in space as Frost’s oft-praised scheme.
FCS scares abound
It’s not Week 1 without an FCS team or two making things interesting against an FBS opponent. Georgia State found itself in a 14–0 first-half hole against its Metro Atlanta rival Kennesaw State, which made the FCS playoffs last year, before battling back for a 24–20 win, taking its first lead of the game with 41 seconds to go on a eight-yard fade to Diondre Champaigne.
Elsewhere in Sun Belt teams facing in-state FCS-FBS openers, Louisiana-Monroe trailed Southeastern Louisiana for long stretches of game action on Thursday night before Warhawks quarterback Caleb Evans led a seven-play, 63-yard drive in the final two minutes and ran it in himself from 11 yards out with 37 seconds left. Louisiana-Monroe still needed to block a game-tying field goal as time expired to pull out a 34–31 win.
And of course, just as those two teams capped off their escaped, San Jose State fell into a two-touchdown hole against UC Davis. The Spartans tried to save face, scoring with 1:24 left in the game to cut the lead to one possession, but the Aggies held on to win, 44–38. UC Davis freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam strafed the SJSU defense for 191 total yards and three touchdowns.
Texas A&M’s $75 million man enjoyed a painless home opener against Northwestern State. Trayveon Williams broke free for a 73-yard touchdown run in the first quarter on his way to 240 yards on the ground, quarterback Kellen Mond found standout tight end Jace Sternberger twice for touchdowns that bookended the second quarter and the Aggies cruised from there to a 59–7 win. The degree of difficulty rises somewhat next week when Clemson comes to College Station.